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by Elizabeth Vaughan

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The daughter of a Warrior King, Lara was trained as a healer, helping both friend and foe. And when the enemy warlord agrees to cease hostilities in exchange for Lara, she agrees to become the Warprize.

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The daughter of a Warrior King, Lara was trained as a healer, helping both friend and foe. And when the enemy warlord agrees to cease hostilities in exchange for Lara, she agrees to become the Warprize.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I loved Warprize! Keir is a hero to savor...and Elizabeth Vaughan is an author to watch." —national bestselling author Claire Delacroix
Claire Delacroix

"I loved Warprize! Keir is a hero to savor...and Elizabeth Vaughan is an author to watch."

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Chronicles of the Warlands , #1
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Penguin Group
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File size:
434 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page


















Teaser chapter




Warprize is possibly the best romantic fantasy I have ever read . . . Continue please to enthrall me with your storytelling.”

—Anne McCaffrey, New York Times bestelling author


“Vaughan’s brawny barbarian romance re-creates the delicious feeling of adventure and the thrill of exploring mysterious cultures created by Robert E. Howard in his Conan books and makes for a satisfying escapist read with its enjoyable romance between a plucky, near-naked heroine and a truly heroic hero.”



“The most entertaining book I’ve read all year.”

All About Romance


Warprize is simply mesmerizing. The story is told flawlessly . . . Keir is a breathtaking hero; you will never look at a warlord the same way again.”

ParaNormal Romance Reviews


“Ms. Vaughan has written a wonderful fantasy . . . The story is well written and fast paced . . . Run to the bookstore and pick up this debut novel . . . You won’t be disappointed by the touching relationship that grows between the Warlord and his warprize.”

A Romance Review




“Vaughan’s descriptive expertise helps bring this adventure vibrantly to life. Poignant and powerful.”

Romantic Times


“Fans will relish this strong romantic quest fantasy.”

Genre Go Round Reviews


“Riveting . . . The plot moves at a nice clip, and the ending is a masterstroke . . . Destiny’s Star is a terrific story.”

The Romance Reader


“Bethral and Ezren are marvelous characters to spend time with . . . [Vaughan] has a gift for bringing cultures and dialogue to life, and I very much look forward to more.”

All About Romance


“Vaughan’s writing is rich and provocative. Her descriptions [are] gorgeous, watching Bethral and Ezren fall in love . . . was perfect . . . I didn’t want the story to end.”

Smexy Books




“An engrossing story which will keep readers enthralled. The characters are interesting and appealing . . . Ms. Vaughan has crafted an interesting world where myths and reality blur. Filled with magic, gods and goddesses, and heroic deeds, the reader will never want to put this book down.”

Fresh Fiction


“There’s tension, turmoil, and adventure on every page. The characters—main and side alike—are interesting and enjoyable. The sex is fun, and the romance is undeniably sweet.”

Errant Dreams Reviews


“Vaughan world-builds with a depth and clarity that allows you to immerse yourself in the world of the hero and heroine . . . If you are looking for a book with colorful world-building, solid characters, and sound storytelling, this one might be just what you’re looking for.”

All About Romance


“A riveting and thoroughly enjoyable story.”

Romance Reviews Today


“Fans will appreciate the clever twist that Elizabeth Vaughan writes in White Star, as the latest return to her Warlands saga is a welcome entry in one of the best romantic fantasies of the last few years.”

Alternative Worlds




Dagger-Star is the perfect blend of fantasy and romance . . . a really enjoyable read.”

Fresh Fiction


“An excellent romantic fantasy . . . Readers will enjoy Elizabeth Vaughan’s superb, clever return to the desolate Warlands.”

Midwest Book Review


“Elizabeth Vaughan pens a story of love and adventure . . . You feel yourself being sucked into the adventure and don’t want to put the book down.”

Manic Readers


“In a return to the world of the Warlands trilogy, Elizabeth Vaughan successfully creates a new set of characters and a new story . . . a very satisfying read.”

Romance Reviews Today


“Gifted storyteller Vaughan delivers a tale of prophecy and rebellion . . . it’s as inventive and riveting as the rest of Vaughan’s novels!”

Romantic Times


“A worthy follow-up to the Warprize trilogy and I look forward to reading her next novel.”

Romance Junkies


“A very good, very sexy book.”

Affaire de Coeur

Berkley Sensation Books by Elizabeth Vaughan


Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.




A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author


Tor mass-market edition / June 2005
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / April 2011


Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Vaughan.


All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.


ISBN: 9781101477748


Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
BERKLEY® SENSATION and the “B” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.




To my parents, Park and Patricia Vaughan


There are so many people I need to thank who have extended their friendship, love, and support to me during the creation of this book. Of all the gifts that writing has given me, your presence in my life is the greatest gift of all.


Spencer Luster, who told me to “put up or shut up.” My writer’s group, which includes Spencer, Helen Kourous, Robert Wenzlaff, Marc Tassin, and Keith Flick. Kathleen Crow, who refused to let my dream die. Kandace Klumper, for quiet words of encouragement and a good swift kick when necessary. Lisa Black, who always wanted more. Patricia Merritt, who is my partner in evil. JoAnn Thompson, who believes in me when I don’t. Mary Fry, Roberto Ledesma, and David Browder, who cheerfully read and commented on my early drafts. Phil Fry, Cathie Hansen, and Deb Spychalski, for putting up with me for the last two years. Jane Lackey, for her long suffering patience. Linda Baker, Don Bingle, and Janet Deaver Pack who showed me that it could happen. Annette Leggett, always running through the forest with sharp objects. The Maumee Valley Chapter of the RWA, who welcomed me with open arms. Tom Redding, who suffered through the galleys. Merrilee Heifetz, Anna Genoese, and Fiorella DeLima, whose hard work and contributions to this book made me look damn good.


But most of all, credit must go to Jean Rabe, who pushed me into the pool, and to Meg Davis, who found me there.

Dear Reader,


What is the special magic behind a book? What gives it the power to sweep us away from our everyday reality and fill us with a sense of wonder? Stories make us laugh with joy or cry in anguish and all because of a bit of ink on a piece of paper. Movies and TV are enjoyable, but nothing beats the pure pleasure of a good read.

I don’t know exactly how it works, this magic that books hold over us, but I am proud to welcome you to this reprint of Warprize. So much has happened since this book was first released. These characters have grown and developed in ways that I would have never anticipated when I first wrote this book. It pleases me to no end that this book is available to you once more, with the addition of a new story I hope you will enjoy.

Please feel free to stop by my website to learn more about me and my stories at www.eavwrites.com or email me at eavwrites@gmail.com.


Welcome to Xy!



“Goddess, no.” I dropped the knife, pressed my hands against his stomach, into the blood, and threw my full weight onto the wound. Biting my lip, I pressed harder still, desperate to stop the bleeding. “Hold him, boys.”

The apprentices gathered around the table grabbed tight to his arms and legs, all of them wide-eyed and pale as they tried to keep him from moving. The wooden table beneath my aged patient creaked and complained at the added weight as the room echoed with the sound of our leather shoes slapping against the stone floor and my patient’s frantic panting.

A quick glance around the large kitchen told me that there were no other healers in sight. They were all in the main hall, tending the others. Just the apprentices, clustered around the table. Blood bubbled up between my fingers, warm and thick. The metallic smell was strong and settled in my mouth. There was something wrong with the smell, but I was too busy to think on it. One of the lads frantically waved a fresh bandage before my eyes, and I snatched it, crammed it into the wound, and pressed down. I had to get it stopped. The bandage turned to scarlet before my eyes.

The man under my hands groaned and thrashed, trying to get away from the pain. One of the smaller lads was flung away. The patient’s freed arm swiped through the air, catching me on the cheek. Vision blurred for a precious instant as my head rocked back with the blow. My hair came loose, and one long brown curl floated down to lie in the blood that surrounded my hands. The felled boy scrambled up and threw himself back into the fray, grabbing the flailing arm and wrestling it down. “Sorry, Lara,” he told me.

“Hold him.” My voice was a croak. I was too harsh on the lads who were trying their best. Their bloodless faces were pale blurs. I heard the one next to me swallowing rapidly. Pray to the Goddess that he’d not spew on the wound. My shoulders tightened as I tried to increase the pressure, trying to staunch the red flow. “I need help here.” I raised my voice to carry into the main hall that was filled with wounded and other healers.

“Lara? What’s happened?” A quiet, calm voice came from behind me.

It was Eln, thank the Goddess.

The warrior surged up again, and the table squeaked in protest. We stayed with him, trying to keep him still, trying to keep the pressure on. He cried out suddenly, then sagged back, exhausted. I gulped in breath to answer. “The shard came out clean but he’s bleeding.”

A head popped in next to mine as Eln craned his scrawny neck to have a look. My teacher for years, he always moved like a gray lake-crane. He made a noncommittal noise, then pulled a deep breath in through his nose. I gritted my teeth. Sometimes he decides that I need a lesson in the midst of saving a life, even though I’ve held my mastery for years. Eln’s head pulled back, but I could feel him standing behind me.

“Not my patient, and not my place to say.” Eln’s voice was quiet, but cut through the moans of the warrior. “But what happens after you stop the bleeding?”

I slammed my eyes shut. My patient shifted again, and we moved with him, automatically.

“Stubborn child . . .” Eln’s voice was a whisper, but I heard it. “You may have gained your mastery but you haven’t truly learned, have you?”

I did not want to concede to his wisdom, did not want to face what the scent of waste in the blood meant, the scent I’d failed to identify a moment before. But experience had been a hard teacher, harder than Eln had ever been. With a nod, and a strangled sob, I released the pressure on the wound. The apprentices froze, not understanding.

“Come, boys.” Eln spoke quietly. “Come with me.”

I ignored them all as they filed out. One stopped, and looked at me.

“Why’d ya stop?”

Kneeling to wash my hands in a bucket on the floor, I looked up into his wide young eyes. “Eln will tell you, child. Go now.”

Eln would not miss a chance to give a lesson, a chance to explain the slow, painful death of a belly wound that stank of waste. Explain that a good healer knew when to let a patient go, that death wasn’t always an enemy. Explain that good healers didn’t stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their limits. I wished them the best of it, for it was a lesson I’d never learned.

Coward that I was, I took a moment to rinse my tunic and trous of the worst of the blood. That might save me some abuse from Anna when I returned to the castle. She claimed that I didn’t own a piece of clothing that didn’t have blood on it at one time or another. The cool, wet cloth felt good against my hot and sweaty skin.

I took a fresh bowl of water and a clean cloth and bathed the man’s face. The bleeding had turned sluggish. It would not be long now. The man sighed and relaxed, muscles releasing their tension under my touch.

Aye, Eln would offer a lesson. But I would offer comfort to a dying man.

The water seemed to ease him, and I put the cloth down for a moment, and steadied myself. I forced myself to rinse my hands again, working the nails to get the blood off. I took a moment to clean the one stray lock of hair and tuck it up again. My hair was a constant irritation, the curls were never content to stay neat on top of my head.

The kitchen had cleared again. It was the best room in the old barracks to use for the worst of the wounded. The large tables served well, and every counter and cupboard was filled with jars and bowls of ointments and remedies. I stared at their bright colors and the false promise of the claims that they could cure all ails. But nothing lay there that could save this man.

A noise drew my attention down. His eyes fluttered open. Once again I took up the water and cloth. As I worked, he focused on me, a question in his stare. I smiled.

“You are in the healing house, warrior. You took a wound. Rest now.”

He licked his lips, narrowed his eyes. “Lance . . . tip broke off . . . belly.”

I nodded. No need to speak. He knew.

He closed his eyes, then opened them again and for the first time he seemed to really look at me. “Fought with your father, Lady.” He gasped as the effort cost him breath. His voice was soft and tight.

I paused. Few were left that could claim to have known my father. “I am sorry, but I don’t know you.”

He didn’t seem to hear me. One corner of his mouth turned up. “You’ve his eyes, child. All fey blue and wise.” His arm trembled as he tried to raise his hand. I caught it and held it in mine. His eyes got a strange light in them, perhaps an echo of his younger self. “Now there was a king, your father. What a warrior he was.” He looked over my shoulder, seeing into the mists of memory.

“I miss him,” I said quietly.

A wave of pain crossed his face. “Aye, Lady,” was the breathless response. “So do we all.” He seemed to gather strength somehow, and he squeezed my hand and gave a slight tug. I lowered my hand to his mouth. With a rasping breath, he spoke. “My hand to yours. Bless you, Xylara, Daughter of the House of Xy, Daughter of Xyron, Warrior King.” He pressed his dry lips to the back of my hand.

It had been long since I’d heard those old words. I kissed his forehead. “My hand to yours. Blessings upon you, Warrior of the House of Xy.”

He smiled, slipping into death even as his hand slipped from mine.


His voice floated over the stone tubs that had been set aside to wash instruments. I ignored him for the moment, concentrating on getting things clean and ready for the next wave of wounded. Experience taught that the lulls in the fighting were to be used, not wasted.

“A good healer is dispassionate. Objective.”

The warrior’s body had been taken up for burial. He had been the last of the severely wounded. I had a small cluster of unhappy apprentices outside, boiling bandages and linens. Not their favorite chore, but a vital one.

Eln had started brewing more orchid root at the fire. The sweet scent was a comfort. Others were tending the large kettles of fever’s foe outside. Everyone, no matter how tired, worked and waited. For the sounds of more battle, more wounded. I closed my eyes, giving in to my exhaustion, and prayed for an end to the war that waged outside the city walls. Prayed that the Firelanders would stop using their lances. Prayed that I’d be skilled enough that no more of my patients would die.

Eln rattled the jars and bottles, and I opened my eyes and watched him. My old teacher, his long arms stretching out, putting them in some kind of order. Slow and steady, moving carefully on tall legs, considering each step. The straight, gray hair that flowed down his back only added to the image of a lake-crane. He gave me a look out of the corner of his eye, and shook his head. “How can one so slight be so stubborn?”

“Eln, how long was I your apprentice?”

He stared pointedly at my bruised cheek. “Long enough to learn.” He regarded me with a solemn look.

“And I have been a master for how long?” I rinsed more of the instruments and set them on a cloth to dry.

He pursed his lips, and pretended to study one of the jars. “Long enough to learn to talk back.”

I snorted. “During that period, how many times have you said that to me?”

“More than I can count, but that does not make it any less true.” He started to gather up the things we would need to check the wounded and tend them. “If you are so wise, Lara, then why do I see guilt in your eyes?”

I glanced out the kitchen window. The afternoon shadows were growing. “I should not have tried to cut it out. Should have left it alone. If I had . . .”

“If.” Eln came to stand next to me. “If you had left it in, was his death not as sure? You tried. That was all you could do. All any of us can do when we are overwhelmed like this.”

I dried my hands, and blinked back tears I didn’t have time for. “We’d better get to work.”


OUT IN THE COMMON ROOM, MEN LAY SLEEPING on cots and pallets, crammed close together. We moved quickly, checking bandages, dispensing medications and powders. Apprentices scurried back and forth, bringing water and cloths, supplies and instruments. Our medicines were greeted with the usual laments over the taste. We ignored the complaints, as we moved around the room, seeing to each man. There were even more upstairs, on the second floor.

Our job was made difficult by the enemy’s use of a thrown lance. Four foot long, tipped with sharp metal barbs that were designed to break off in the wound. When thrown from horseback, they tore flesh and muscle in ways that could easily cripple a man, and made healing difficult. Our warriors had seen nothing like it before. Nor had they ever dealt with an army that fought only from horseback. Devil riders, they called them, men and women who could sit on a galloping horse and shoot arrow after arrow, with deadly accuracy. We’d heard rumors that they ate their dead, and tore the hearts out of their kills. That they were black, and yellow, and blue, and that their eyes glowed with madness.

I ignored the talk and concentrated on my work. The men were grateful, and it tore my heart, how a kind word and a cool cloth would lift their spirits. A few recognized me as a Daughter of the Blood, but most simply welcomed me as the healer that I was. Just as well. I was not particularly proud of my “royal” heritage at the moment.

We worked our way through the men, cleaning and checking wounds. Tomorrow, we would welcome a small legion of servants who came every morning, for the general bathing, bedding, and slop pots. Volunteers from the city folk, some castle servants, since the need was so great. The healers and apprentices couldn’t do everything.

It was late by the time I knelt next to the last patient. “It’s well?” He rasped, peering at the gash in his calf as I replaced the bandage.

“Very well.”

“It don’t look well.” He reached out a finger to touch it. I smacked his hand. He pulled it back, as shocked as a child.

“It will not be well if you poke at it.” I frowned at him, and finished covering the wound. “Leave it be.”

“Aye, Lady.” He bobbed his head, looking sheepish, giving me a toothless grin.

I rose from the floor, and stifled a cry as the muscles in my back protested. I was feeling all of my twenty-five years. I picked up my supplies and moved off, trying to stretch out the tightness in my back as I went downstairs. Eln was in the kitchen, washing up. He grimaced at me as I grabbed up some soap and a cloth. “Finished?”

I nodded.

“I’ve no one to send to escort you.”

I shrugged. “It’s not the first time I’ve walked to the castle alone.”

“It’s not proper.” He paused for a moment. “I suppose you are going to those tents now?” I could hear the resignation in his tone.

I avoided him for the moment and plunged my hands into one of the buckets. The familiar scents of the herbs and mixtures were welcome and I took a deep breath. The bitter smell of fever’s foe came in through the window.

“The King has told you not to go there, Lara. I thought that maybe . . .” His voice trailed off, hinting at the doubt in his eyes.

“The King? Let me worry about him, Eln.” I gathered my hair up and tried to tame it back in a braid. “Death and injury aren’t limited to us Xyians. I can’t stop the fighting, can’t bring peace, but I won’t neglect wounded men. We take oaths when we gain our mastery. Remember?”

He sighed, and thrust a jar toward me. “There’s extra of the fever’s foe. It will go bad if it’s not used.”

Fever’s foe takes months to go bad. This jar was from last week’s batch. I hid my smile and put the jar in the basket I had pulled from the corner, carefully cushioning all the other bottles inside. “My thanks.”

“I wish I could do more.” He made a move to follow.

I picked up the basket and grabbed the jug of liniment that I’d mixed the night before. “Eln, I don’t expect you to come with me.”

“I have sworn the same oaths.” He tilted his head. “Xylara . . .”

“You can’t get away with disobeying the King, Eln.” I flashed him a smile. “He’s not your half brother.”

He laughed ruefully. “That is so.”

I smiled, headed outside, and paused to let my eyes adjust to the twilight. Summer was still with us, but barely. There was a hint of chill in the evenings now, the first sign of the winter snows to come. I shifted my basket and the jug and wished that I had thought to grab my cloak. It would be late before I would finish my work in the tents deep in the castle gardens.

The barracks sprawled against the southern wall of the city. I had a fairly long walk ahead of me. Even as I stepped out, my eyes were drawn up.

I have seen it nearly every day since I was a little girl, but the sight of the castle of Water’s Fall never failed to amaze. The huge tower was built into the mountainside. Even in the starlight, its gray rugged granite was a stark contrast to the greenery around it. The various waterfalls that gave the city and castle its name trickled and roared down the cliffs, making a striking picture. Ten generations, the House of Xy had labored to build and expand and improve the castle at the head of the valley and its city. I bit my lip, trying to remember which ancestor had named the place. Xyson? Or was it Xyred?

I crossed the ward to the small gate that would let me out onto the main street. There was an older guard there, and he raised a hand in greeting as I passed him. I nodded back, then plunged into the hustle and bustle of the avenue. This late, everyone was starting to head for home. Rather than head north to the main thoroughfare, I went south. It was the more direct route, although it would take me past the farmers’ markets. Hopefully the crowds would have dwindled, having made their purchases earlier in the day. I strode along as quickly as I could, watching where I stepped. For all the ordinances about refuse, one was never sure what might be tossed out into the street at any given moment. Of course there were fines, but the Guard had little time to worry over that issue. They had more than enough problems on their hands.

It had not been a good summer for us. Spring had brought with it what we’d thought would be the normal raiding along the border by the people we called the Firelanders. But the warriors we faced this time were led by a warlord they called the Cat. His armies had descended on our southern borders, devastating the countryside and the towns and villages that lay there. Usually the Firelanders looted and pillaged on the border and then disappeared into their wide grasslands without a trace. But this warlord had different ideas. He was seizing towns, and holding them, forcing the folk to swear fealty to him. It was said that he would kill all the men if the people resisted, torture the women and children, and burn the town to the ground. All through the summer, he’d fought his way up the valley, securing the lands behind him.

Water’s Fall had filled with those fleeing the conflict. King Xymund had assured his Council and the lords that this upstart would be crushed under the might of the armies of Xy. But over the months, our army had been pushed back by the warlord’s thundering horses and flights of arrows. The healing temple overflowed with the injured and displaced. Many were taken in by families in the city who opened their homes. With the influx of people, the city was a crowded, unhappy place. Eln said that the crowding would bring more illness with it, and I feared he was right.

The farmers’ market wasn’t its normal noisy, boisterous self, with vendors calling out the virtue of their wares. There was a dullness to it, fear that hovered in the very air. Still the clamor from the poulterer’s was as loud as ever. Geese, tied to the stall in every way possible, honked and gabbled and beat their wings. Chickens and ducks, their legs trussed together, floundered on the ground nearby, their clucking adding to the cacophony. There were feathers everywhere, and the smell of drying blood.

Even with the armies of the warlord drawing close to the city, Xymund, Lord High King, had evidenced great mercy to his opponents. He had publicly decreed that wounded prisoners taken on the field were to be housed and cared for as our own. But his private hypocrisy was the few prisoners that had been taken were isolated in the deepest part of the gardens that lay within the castle walls, surrounded by guards and given the barest of necessities. As the days passed, it was clear that Xymund regretted his public stance. It was only the need to live up to his honorable image that kept those men alive.

Certainly no other healer dared to venture there. The King seemed to feel that caring for these men was treason of the highest order. I’d fought hard to be Eln’s apprentice, fought harder to claim journeyman’s status, and then defied my father himself to claim my mastery. Xymund could bully the entire guild, but I’d sworn oaths to deprive no one in need of my services, and I’d ventured to the tent, with no support, and much opposition. I’d ignored them all, and dared any and all to say me nay, but in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t sure if I cared for their wounds out of a higher ideal, or simply as a way to anger my elder half brother.

My elder half brother had, in turn, suggested, asked, demanded, ordered, and forbidden my visits. I disregarded him. He had cursed, ranted, and shouted to no avail. He’d kept the pressure up, making it a daily battle for me to render aid to those men. Pressure had been brought to bear, and I’d come close a time or two to wavering. But each time I’d reconsider my defiance, there’d be another wounded Firelander dragged to the tent and dumped on the floor. I could not turn my back. Not when I had it within my power to heal and ease their pain.

Nevertheless, Xymund had made one thing very clear. None of the prisoners was to know that I was a Daughter of the Blood. If anyone learned that fact, he said that he would chain me in my room for the duration of the war.

Even I could see the sense in that.

I walked through the city, dodging animals and people, carts and wagons. It was very crowded on the streets. People of all shapes and sizes were moving about their business before the markets closed for the night and the Watch was about. At one intersection a cart had lost its wheel, its cargo spilled onto the street. Men were shouting at one another, trying to clear the way. I turned down one of the side streets, trying to avoid the mess. Here, the buildings were built tight to one another and leaned out over the streets, blocking the light. I was glad to turn back onto one of the wide main streets and get on my way.

As I went, I could sense a difference. There seemed to be a feeling of suppressed panic in the air. Men stood at corners, talking softly in clusters. The bargaining had a frantic sense to it. I wondered if there had been some news of the Cat. I took another detour of sorts, moving down an alley to come out in the spice markets. I paused before entering the flow of traffic, looking for colorful flags on poles, and spotted Kalisa’s cart, tucked in the entrance of another alley.

Bent half double with age, her back humped up, her fingers crooked and swollen, Kalisa was one of the few shorter than I was. Normally, she also had the brightest smile and the best cheese in the city. But there was no smile for me today.

“Lara.” Whatever else, her eyes and mind were still sharp. “Don’t you have an escort? It’s not safe, child.” She tipped her head and looked me over.

“Kalisa, I’ve never had any trouble—”

“Aye, were times what they were, I’d agree. Not now.” She scowled at me, even as her hands pulled out a small wheel of hard cheese. “Rumor has it that our King has hired mercenaries to guard his carcass, heathen foreigners who wander the streets terrorizing women.”

I set my jug and basket down between my feet. “The same rumor that says that the Firelanders are blue, red, and black, and belch fire from their mouths?”

She handed me a slice of her sharpest cheese, and a thin cracker, which I took eagerly. The taste flooded my mouth, making me aware of my hunger. It had been long since breakfast, and it tasted wonderful. Kalisa tilted her head to be able to look into my eyes. “Have you not heard?” Her face as serious as I had ever seen.

“Heard what?”

“The army has pulled back within the city walls. King’s command. Did you not hear the horns?” She cut another slice. “Heard tell that the Lord Marshall is having fits.”

The cracker and cheese was suddenly dry in my mouth. “Pulled back? But . . .”

Her white head shook as she handed me another piece of cheese. “Child, you need to look up from your work once in a while, eh?”

“The last I heard, things were going well.” I swallowed hard. “At the very gates?”

“Everyone’s frantic. Stripped my cart almost bare, they did. And the Watch is doubled tonight. You best be getting home.” Kalisa nudged me. “Aye and look there.”

I looked to where her gnarled finger, held low behind the cart, pointed into the crowd. I looked up to see Lord Durst riding by, with his son and heir, Degnan. They wore their usual haughty, sullen expressions. No fear that they would recognize me in the press, but then my odd ways were an open secret. Xymund usually said something when one of the nobility came for a visit. What were they doing here?

Kalisa had no doubts. “Cowards fled their lands for this safety. Left all behind, so I hear.”

I scowled at her. “Such talk could get you beaten, old woman.”

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